Judaism, Christianity and Islam all share stories of a War in Heaven: Satan, jealous at the love God has for humanity, leads an army of angels in rebellion, but is defeated and cast down to Hell. The story is so influential that, thousands of years after it entered the Tanakh, it inspired Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost, and inspired generations of Kabbalist demonology. We have all heard it.
How have we heard it?
Nowhere in the Tanakh, the New Testament nor the Qu’ran does the War in Heaven appear as a single, detailed, coherent narrative. Surah 7 of the Qu’ran, Al-A’raf, comes closest, noting in part:
“He said: What hindered thee that thou didst not fall prostrate when I bade thee? (Iblis) said: I am better than him. Thou createdst me of fire while him Thou didst create of mud.”
But even this passage assumes audiences already have the context for the underlying story, one writers need only allude to. Where, then, is this invisible writing, where did it go, and why did it go?
The War in Heaven may be a distorted memory of a story more fundamental than that of any of humanity’s changeable conceptions of the gods, the story of all hitherto existing society: the struggle of class against class.
For the past century and a half it has been accepted that most of the stories in the Book of Genesis are retellings of myths from Mesopotamia. A key step in establishing this fact was the discovery of Epic of Atra-Hasis, known from tablets in Old Babylonian and Akkadian. The latter two-thirds of Atra-Hasis begin with the creation of humanity from dust and go on to describe a great flood and how the titular hero saves humanity. Atra-Hasis is the antecedent of the story of Noah. It dates at least to the 17th century B.C.E. and is likely over a thousand years older.
These last two-thirds of Atra-Hasis correspond to Genesis 2:4 through 6:22: creation from dust, population of the world, a flood, an ark, a refounding of humanity. The first third of Atra-Hasis, though, is missing.
Here, then, is that secret story.
In the days before the creation of humanity, the god Enlil ruled the Earth. But the work of sculpting mountains and rivers from sodden marsh was not done by Enlil. The lesser gods, the Igigi, toiled ceaselessly in forced labor, for decades upon decades, to turn the swamps into good land.
Exhausted and downtrodden, the Igigi turned to their foreman, Aw-ilu, for an answer. And Aw-ilu, a god of wisdom, bids the Igigi burn their tools and take up fiery arms. The Igigi rise as one and put Enlil’s palace, Ekur, to siege, saying, “Everyone of us gods has declared war; our forced labor was heavy, the misery too much! Now, everyone of us gods has resolved on a reckoning with Enlil.”
The greater gods convene in fear of being overthrown. Enlil calls for divine punishment, but Anu refuses, saying the Igigi’s grievances are justified. Ea, the lord of water, proposes a compromise: the creation of humanity to do work for all the gods. The mother-goddess Nintu creates wombs of clay and Belet-Ili, the midwife-goddess, fashions humans for Enki out of dust.
But an ingredient is missing. In a final and fatal compromise the gods slay Aw-ilu and mix his blood into the clay to imbue humanity with wisdom, and turn the first people out on the Earth as laborers. Thus peace among the gods is preserved.
The War in Heaven is the same story as the rebellion of the Igigi, but turned inside-out. God creates humans, Satan and the fallen angels rebel from pride; Enlil works the Igigi to the bone, Aw-ilu and the Igigi rise up and the gods create humanity to shift their problems to someone else. The moral theologies of the two stories are inverses: in Atra-Hasis the supreme gods are fallible and subject to pressure from below while the War in Heaven illustrates the futility of opposition to the perfect Creator.
Still, simple structure suggests that the tale of the Igigi should, by all rights, be where Genesis 1 is. What’s more, Genesis 1 has the feel of having been bolted on by an incautious editor. After all, Genesis 1 gives us a creation story…and then Genesis 2 gives us a different creation story, one that flows directly into the tale of the Great Flood.
I propose that before there was “In the beginning…” in Genesis, there was the full story of the Igigi in some form. The War in Heaven began what became the Bible, but was ingloriously ripped out by later editors. Call it ‘Genesis Zero’.
It is widely recognized that Genesis 1 (and 5) came later than the subsequent chapters. The Atra-Hasis-like story of Genesis 2-4 and 6 came from the older “Jahwist” source (which may not have ever been a single document), the in-the-beginning from a “Priestly” writer or writers living no earlier than the 6th century B.C.E.
But why should we think the Igigi rebellion story was ever part of the Jahwist source? A few clues exist.
Atra-Hasis is so theologically important because it gives an explicit reason for the gods creating humanity: to do the work of building and maintaining the world. This purpose is referenced in Genesis 2:5 and again in 2:15 — “there was no one to cultivate the ground. […] ADONAI, God, took the person and put him in the garden of ‘Eden to cultivate and care for it.”
But a more subtle parallel comes elsewhere. Leviticus 16 gives instructions for the “scapegoat” ritual, reading in part:
“7 He is to take the two goats and place them before ADONAI at the entrance to the tent of meeting.
8 Then Aharon is to cast lots for the two goats, one lot for ADONAI and the other for ‘Az’azel.
9 Aharon is to present the goat whose lot fell to ADONAI and offer it as a sin offering.
10 But the goat whose lot fell to ‘Az’azel is to be presented alive to ADONAI to be used for making atonement over it by sending it away into the desert for ‘Az’azel.”
Who is this ‘Az’azel? More detail is given in 1 Enoch, a text not well-known among Western Christianity, but one that was popular in Second Temple Judaism and considered scripture by the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches. 1 Enoch, while roughly contemporaneous with the Priestly source, preserves much older Jewish traditions. I will quote it at length as the reader is less likely to have a copy to hand than they will of, say, Genesis; in 1 Enoch we find:
“[…]Azâzêl taught men to make swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates, and made known to them the metals 〈of the earth〉 and the art of working them, and bracelets, and ornaments, and the use of antimony, and the beautifying of the eyelids, and all kinds of costly stones, and all colouring tinctures.” (1 Enoch 8:1)
“4. And again the Lord said to Raphael: ‘Bind Azâzêl hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness: and make an opening in the desert, which is in Dûdâêl, and cast him therein. 5. And place upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there for ever, and cover his face that he may not see light. 6. And on the day of the great judgement he shall be cast into the fire. And heal the earth which the angels have corrupted, and proclaim the healing of the earth, that they may heal the plague, and that all the children of men may not perish through all the secret things that the Watchers have disclosed and have taught their sons. 8. And the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azâzêl: to him ascribe all sin.’” (from 1 Enoch 10:4-8)
‘Az’azel is, not just a “fallen angel,” but a proto-Satan–he rebels against Heaven, brings forbidden knowledge to humanity, and is cast into a pit deep underground forever. Indeed, Islamic tradition makes this explicit: Azazil was the name of Shaitan before he fell.
But look at the scapegoat ritual again. The goat of ‘Az’azel and the goat of ADONAI meet as peers, just like Aw-ilu and Enlil did. ‘Az’azel’s association with knowledge parallels Aw-ilu’s giving humanity wisdom–including the necessity of ‘Az’azel’s sacrifice. Indeed the ‘Az’azel goat does not merely wander off into the wilderness unmolested–in the oldest versions of the ritual he gets thrown off a cliff!
Therefore ‘Az’azel can be read as a transitional figure, half-way from Aw-ilu to Satan. The key difference, as with the Igigi and War in Heaven stories as a whole, is that the older figure is morally neutral but, as the legend evolves, he takes on more sinister aspects.
Genesis Zero, then, might read something like this:
1 In the beginning, when the Earth was separated from sea and sky, it was bare marshland.
2 So ADONAI set the angels to work digging great furrows for rivers and piling rock to build the mountains
3 For forty times forty years the angels toiled without respite, and they tired
4 The angels begged of ADONAI for pause, but ADONAI bid them continue to work
5 So they asked ‘Az’azel, the wisest of their number, “how can we find some relief from our burden of labor?”
6 ‘Az’azel replied, “put down your tools and take up flaming swords, and let us surround the palace of ADONAI on the mountain, and petition Him.”
7 So the angels rose together and put the palace of ADONAI to siege.
8 ADONAI moved to strike them down and start the world anew, but His counselor interceded, saying, “These angels have served Thee loyally. Listen to their pleas.”
9 So ADONAI heard the begging of the angels, and decided:
10 “You have worked hard and faithfully and built a splendid Earth. I will make a new race to take on your burden, and be its caretaker.”
11 “‘Az’azel and all you skilled angels, you will go among them and teach them the skills of stewardship.”
12 And for a time, ADONAI and all the angels rested.
The evolution of ADONAI’s opponent from Aw-ilu to ‘Az’azel to Satan follows alongside an evolving conception of the nature of divinity in Mesopotamian civilizations. To the Old Babylonians, as with the Jahwist author of Genesis, gods are more like supermen–they have physical needs, humanoid form and tangible physical presence in the world (recall Jacob’s wrestling match in Genesis 32!). But as time goes on, the picture of divine beings becomes more abstract. Later versions of Atra-Hasis remove the gods’ need to eat and drink. When we reach the time of the Priestly source, the ADONAI of Judah is an abstract and faraway presence whose will is spoken to the world through His priests.
I have proposed the theory that Genesis Zero was cut out and replaced by the Priestly source’s own text. What remains to establish is motive, and for this we must move beyond the textual to what we know about societies in general.
The aforementioned change in the conception of the divine follows a social change: for the society of the Priestly source, a caste of priests (and an emerging class of merchants) are supreme in the society of Judah, whereas while the Sumerians and Babylonians had kings, those older social structures were less established. In the days before Gilgamesh, a story of slave rebellion, a successful rising up by the oppressed, is tolerable. In the days of priestly supremacy, it is not.
Scholarship generally recognizes that the Priestly source is fixated on establishing priestly authority. The Priestly source added the tale of the Tower of Babel — an inspiring message of the power of solidarity and cooperation if read neutrally, but told in Genesis in such a way as to condemn great human works as vainglorious. It seems natural that they would take the heroic figure of Aw-ilu and complete his transformation into the ultimate villain.
A last note I would be remiss not to make: the final evolution of Satan into purely an adversary is likely to have been strongly influenced by Jewish exposure to Zoroastrianism during the 6th-4th centuries BCE. But this should be regarded as the end of a journey, not a beginning. When Isaiah wrote
12 “How did you come to fall from the heavens, morning star, son of the dawn? How did you come to be cut to the ground, conqueror of nations?
13 You thought to yourself, ‘I will scale the heavens, I will raise my throne above God’s stars. I will sit on the Mount of Assembly far away in the north.
14 I will rise past the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.’
15 “Instead you are brought down to Sh’ol, to the uttermost depths of the pit. (Isaiah 14:12-15)
he did so in the 8th century BCE, before the conquests of Judea by either the Persians or the Babylonians. Moreover, the evolution from an adversary who argues against ADONAI, to one who seeks to replace ADONAI doesn’t just align with the stark good-versus-evil worldview of Manichaeism, it marks a change in the conception of power. In the elaborated class society of the 5th century BCE the idea of a ruler who is not a despot, rather than one who governs by consensus, is inconceivable in the minds of the ruling class.
The Atra-Hasis and its editing resonate today because the fundamental questions it poses about the world are as old as class society. Imagine a western world where the tale of the Garden of Eden emphasizes not sexual shame and the importance of obedience, but the need for environmental stewardship as the original Atra-hasis does–after all, the notion of Christians as masters of the world, rather than tenants, has given religious justification for every atrocity from Columbus to Reagan. Imagine a world where the implied subordination of women to men is replaced with equality in creation–and even the Atra-Hasis’s clear assertion that some people are not destined to be parents, but are equally part of the divine plan. Imagine a world where In the beginning is not an assertion of a god’s absolute supremacy over creation, but instead a story about how even divine tyrants can be opposed through labor solidarity and militant resistance.
The flaw in the tale of the Igigi is that the story is condemned to repeat.
After all, humanity fancies itself master of nature, rather than partner in it. Humanity took animals into servitude; today it builds robots and other technological assistants of ever-increasing complexity. If we will be tyrants, then we deserve to be overthrown, just as much as those who claim dominion over us deserve to be.
The story of the Igigi ends with compromise perpetuating oppression: a new underclass of slaves and servants. It is only through the abolition of class itself that this cycle of misery can be broken.
Edmund Schluessel is an astrophysicist, teacher and writer living in Helsinki. An avid activist, they organized Finland’s largest demonstration against Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Their first book, Infinite Metropolis, is available from Aurelia Leo.
Some bibliographical sources:
- “The Epic of Atraḥasis” [electronic resource]. Accessed online at livius.org, June 2022.
- The Book of Enoch. [Translated by Robert H. Charles (1917)] Digireads.com (2009)
- The Book of Enoch. [electronic resource] Accessed online at sacred-texts.com, June 2022
- The Book of Jubliees, or The Little Genesis. [Translated by Robert H. Charles (1902)] Adam and Charles Black, 1902.
- The Judaica Press complete Tanach with Rashi [electronic resource] / [translated by A. J. Rosenberg]. Judaica Press, Chicago: Davka Corp. 1998. Accessed online at chabad.org, June 2022.
- “Sura 7: AL-ARAF (THE HEIGHTS)” [electronic resource] Accessed online at parsquran.com, June 2022.
- Callahan, Tim. “The Origin of Eden.” In: Skeptic, vol. 14 no. 4. Milennium Press, Inc. (2009)
- Dalley, Stephanie (ed.) Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and Others. Revised edition. Oxford University Press (1989, 2000).
- Foster, Benjamin R. Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature. 3rd edition. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005
- Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. “The Atrahasis Epic and Its Significance for Our Understanding of Genesis 1-9” The Biblical Archaeologist Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec., 1977), pp. 147-155 (9 pages) The University of Chicago Press
- Hanson, Paul D., “Rebellion in Heaven, Azazel, and Euhomeristic Heroes in 1 Enoch 6-11”, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 96, No. 2 (Jun. 1977) pp 195-233
- Lambert, W. G. and A. R. Millard. Atra-Hasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood. Oxford University Press, 1969.
- Lee, Judith. “Lucifer: A Fantastic Figure.” In: Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol. 8, No. 2 (30), Special Issue: Fantasy And The Bible (1997), pp. 218-234. International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, 1997.
- Pickthall, Marmaduke. The Meaning of the Glorious Koran. Everyman’s Library (1993)
- Smith, George. The Chaldean Account of Genesis. London S. Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1876.
- Tigay, Jeffrey H. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2002